Back in February I was skiing in the traditional hot spring town of Nozawa Onsen when I first heard the unlikely tale of Arai Resort. The heir to the Sony fortune had spent close to a billion dollars building Arai for the sole purpose of opening Japan’s first world-class ski resort, which he did in 1993 during the tail end of Japan’s “Bubble Era.” The resort is located just over the border in Niigata Prefecture, not far as the crow flies from where Nozawa Onsen is nestled deep in northern Nagano Prefecture.
The resort closed in 2006 due to financial problems, and has been sitting under meters of snow each winter until recently, when Korea’s Lotte Corporation purchased Arai and began to rebuild the resort. The grand re-opening of Lotte Arai Resort happened this past December just before Korea hosted its first Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Arai was rumored to have alpine terrain above the treeline with wide open bowls, and some areas that had a reputation of being avalanche prone. I’d also heard some strange whispers that the area was cursed with bad luck. Superstition aside, it did not seem like your typical Japanese ski resort, but it sounded like a great destination for the adventurous skier.
I checked out Lotte Arai Resort online and they had a snow depth of four-and-a-half meters with 40 cms. of fresh powder just a few days ago. They were going to host a Freeride World Tour qualifier event, so I teamed up with some snowboarder friends and hit the road the next morning to go check it out.
After a pretty hour-long drive from Nozawa we arrived to a large and almost empty carpark amidst bluebird skies. We walked straight through the massive hotel and onwards towards the base of the gondola. Everything was bright and shiny, clean and freshly painted. And bizarrely devoid of people. It was clearly a purpose-built luxury resort catering to the higher end of the market, not ski bums like myself. Lift tickets were priced expensively by Japan standards at around ¥6,000 a day, but from what I could see from the bottom of the mountain, the terrain looked rad.
We ended up having a fun day riding tracked- out powder and finding a few stashes to ourselves. With open alpine bowls up high and tree skiing at the bottom, the mountain had fun ridges and cliffs to jump off. It was steep enough to go fast but nowhere that you needed to worry about getting cliffed out. Quite a few areas were roped off due to avalanche danger or access difficulties. The chair- lifts were fast and with only about a hundred or so skiers and boarders, there was plenty of leftover powder to go around.
My overall impression was of a less steep and lower elevation version of Jackson Hole and the exclusive, luxury, fur-coat-type vibe of Deer Valley. Also, contrary to the rumors, it was completely safe.
I returned a month later at the beginning of March to compete in the Freeride World Tour 2-star Qualifier. By this stage spring had sprung in Japan and conditions were 10 centimeters of sticky powder on a rain-affected, slightly rotten base of snow. The competition face was a slightly steep alpine bowl with a few features but nothing too extreme. Not ideal, but all the competitors were in the same boat. The eighty-or-so riders were a combination of foreigners spending a winter in Japan like myself and top-end local riders from this area of Japan. There were virtually no other customers at the resort. I stuck my planned line and ended up coming in tenth in open male ski. The top three skiers were skilled local Japanese free riders. I stayed around to enjoy some beers at the presentation party before heading back to Nozawa.
Lotte Arai Resort will definitely become a hotspot for western skiers and boarders over the next few years. Curiosity is high but it could take awhile for Japanese customers to begin to visit, possibly due to superstition and also partly a reluctance to patronize a Korean-owned ski area, but perhaps their curiosity will take them there. Personally I loved it for its consistent semi-steep angle terrain and open bowls. I’m sure it would be a great choice for cashed-up families looking to stay at a luxurious base area, onsen facilities and fine wining and dining with the resort at their doorstep. If you’re a rider on a budget, it would be best to wait for a storm and smash out a day trip from a nearby town.